Given that Hollywood shot its load of major releases last week just in time for the Thanksgiving weekend (nope, not a coincidence), this week is a little light on the new release front. So, the “Good, Bad, Ugly” format will have to take a brief hiatus to discuss the only two worthy films plopping into theaters. Fortunately, there’s a common theme between the movies, so I do at least get to have a connecting gimmick this week, don’t you worry about that.
If you’re heading out to the movie theater this weekend, folks, you’re going to learn one rather unfortunate truth: sex can be an ugly thing. That’s right, this is perhaps the worst week of new releases ever for anyone seeking out a date movie as your choice basically comes down to whether you want to focus on male or female sexual degradation. Thankfully both movies are quite strong; just be aware that your chances of getting lucky after watching either flick are slim to none.
Bad Sex for Boys: Shame
Sexual addition. Stop snickering, it’s not just something your spouse claims you have. Nope, it’s a painful, dehumanizing condition that’s all-consuming and self-destructive. Yet, it’s not something we tend to hear much about in film despite the fact that it appears a variety of people in the industry seem to suffer from it. Well, the good news is that now we’ve got Shame, a harsh and uncompromising look at the issue starring Michael Fassbender as a wealthy, smooth-talking white-collar Manhattan type with quite a few dirty little secrets.
Fassbender’s character has the looks and charm to wander into a bar and come out with any lady he pleases, but that’s just not enough. High priced prostitutes, office bathroom spank sessions, hours upon hours of Internet porn — there’s nothing he won’t do to satisfy his insatiable appetite for sexual gratification. The only thing he can’t seem to do is experience a genuine emotional connection, so he lives a very cold, lonely existence constantly chasing the next orgasm like a junkie hungry for a fix.
His listless, unhappy, but monetarily successful life is rudely interrupted one day when his sister (the excellent Carey Mulligan) suddenly arrives to crash on his couch. She’s lost too, never fully employed and floating from one meaningless relationship to the next. Her presence seems to rouse an intense anger in Fassbender and it’s clear some dark secret from their childhood ruined both of them forever. However, co-writer/director Steve McQueen (no, not that one) admirably never succumbs to dime store psychology that over-explains their emotional baggage. Instead, his film is merely a study of damaged souls and all the more powerful for it.
McQueen and Fassbender appear to be a marquee filmmaking team with Shame following up their fantastically disturbing 2008 collaboration Hunger. Fassbender is slowly becoming one of the finest actors of his generation and Shame represents some of his best work to date. He doesn’t get much in the way of lines in the movie, nor does he play a character capable of opening up about his emotional turmoil. Yet, there isn’t a moment that we don’t know exactly what the character is feeling and experiencing through Fassbender’s incredible work. He expresses more through a silent, lonely walk in the rain than most actors can with a big Oscar-clip speech.
McQueen’s background as a visual artist ensures that he’s a bit of a show-off director, compiling the film through a series of long lingering takes. Yet, he’s also talented enough as a writer to create material that suits his style. Here he makes no attempt to get inside his characters’ heads, instead artfully observing them in a series of long, detached shots. It’s a coldly distancing style, but one perfectly suited to the subject matter, powerfully forcing the audience to observe a lonely walk of self-destruction.
There’s no getting around it, Shame is not an easy movie to watch. McQueen and Fassbender delve as deeply as they can into the world of ugly sexual compulsion and earn their NC-17 rating. Yet, it is a rewarding journey into darkness. In our dirty little porn-filled world, sexual addiction like this is far from rare and spending a grueling few hours trapped with Fassbender’s character is a powerful way of acknowledging the elephant in the room. Shame will never become a family movie night classic, but it will always be a perversely fascinating film for audiences strong and twisted enough to stomach it.
Bad Sex for Girls: Sleeping Beauty
Cannes Film Festival favorite Sleeping Beauty proves that the world of dirty sex can be just as ugly for women, though this perspective comes more from a victim of sexual compulsion rather than someone seeking out endless carnal satisfaction. The film stars the almost unfairly gorgeous Emily Browning as a college student perpetually in need of cash. She works a variety of part-time jobs and submits to dehumanizing medical testing, but is also happy to turn tricks by hungrily gobbling up men at bars with her unavoidable sex appeal.
Soon she discovers a bizarre sex club and happily donates her body to employment. This starts off as a position serving wealthy men in her underoos, but soon she’s performing a far more disturbing service. For an inevitably wallet-busting fee, men can pay to spend hours with the girl’s naked body while she’s in a drugged coma. It’s a disturbing image of the dehumanization of prostitution and despite all of the gorgeous naked flesh on screen, there’s very little to find arousing while watching these services go down.
There’s something deeply wrong about the services that Browning’s character provides and watching a parade of elderly perverts drool and obsess over her naked flesh is an artfully disturbing deconstruction of the male gaze. There are undeniable similarities between this sex cult in Sleeping Beauty and the one in Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut, but while that sex cult had the appearance of an elderly filmmaker’s erotic nightmares, the sex trade in Sleeping Beauty feels slightly more close to reality.
The film is a haunting debut from writer/director Julia Leigh and features a stunning central performance from young Australian actress Emily Browning, who was previously known for being the best part of terrible movies like Sucker Punch and A Series of Unfortunate Events. Though even more of an arcane art school project than Shame, there’s something undeniably haunting, hypnotic, and thrillingly adult-minded about Sleeping Beauty that makes it a fascinating watch. Let’s just hope that no families accidentally stumble into the theater confused by the title. This movie could easily ruin a few princess-themed children’s birthday parties.